Reality Labs

5 factors that will change how we work in 2021 and beyond

December 1, 2020

There hasn’t been a year in recent memory that has upended the nature of work as much as 2020. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, companies around the world scrambled to keep their operations running by deploying new technologies, often at scale, to let their workers do their jobs remotely.

Now, as the dust settles, companies can see what was effective and what wasn’t about the experiment of remote work in 2020, and what they must do differently as it becomes the norm. As we move toward 2021, we envision a new world in which advanced technologies merge with evolving philosophies of work. Here are five things we think will change the future of work for the better, for everyone. 

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Prediction 1: The next frontier of SaaS: Frontline workers will be at the center of decision-making, with “career frontliners” being the norm.

Work has always played an important role in our social lives, but never as much as during the pandemic, when months of lockdown took a toll on people’s emotional health. Technology and tools that aid remote presence helped us feel closer together while we were physically apart, but there’s a long way to go.

This is particularly true for frontline workers, who unfortunately may be the least connected to their companies, yet the most exposed to the virus. Essential workers like teachers, doctors, retail staff and manufacturing workers often don’t have access to the same company-wide technology as their colleagues. Many don’t have a company email or even a desk.

However, companies are starting to realize the invaluable and unique insights these workers, who are traditionally the first touch-point with customers, can bring back to their organizations. Businesses are now trying to make the working lives of these employees easier, by centralizing tools for tasks like getting shifts covered or sharing critical health and safety information with them instantly, on their mobile phones. 

We think that going forward, companies will no longer overlook the power these workers have and will give them the tools they need to communicate and collaborate with the wider business. In turn, frontline workers will feel more empowered and closer to the business, and game-changing decisions will ultimately bubble up from the frontline.

Vicki Huff, Vice Chair, PwC United States and Ventures and Innovation, Global Leader, points to the important role digital solutions play here: “To thrive in 2021, companies need to put employees at the center of their workspace philosophies. By honing in on the employee experience, employers can improve productivity, increase engagement, and create a more connected and efficient workforce. Central to making this happen will be digital solutions that integrate with a company’s existing tech stack and are personalized to individual employees.”

Prediction 2: Health and wellbeing will be the new corporate KPI.

Companies have never been more aware that the happiest employees are those whose work has impact beyond the organization. Study after study shows that a sense of purpose is key to job satisfaction, and companies know that motivating workers means aligning their self-fulfillment with business goals.

But employees are overtaxed by the demands of work, and research indicates they're not the only ones. A recent Oracle-Workplace Intelligence survey of 12,000 workers—including 3,100 C-level executives—showed that corporate leaders are as susceptible to professional stress as anyone. 71% of executives said 2020 was their most-stressful work year ever, and 53% reported struggling with mental health issues at work.

Focusing on improving employee well-being is not only the right thing to do, but companies are also aware that it leads to increased business performance. That's why they’re looking for tech and other tools to boost job satisfaction, worker health, sustainability, work-life balance, and flexible working arrangements. 

Technologies like artificial intelligence will be essential in this pursuit. The Oracle-Workplace Intelligence study found that 75% of employees believe AI can assist with providing information vital to their jobs, automating tasks, and reducing stress. It also revealed that 68% of employees would rather discuss workplace stress with a robot than their manager.

That’s why a company like Moneypenny, who handle outsourced calls, live chat and digital comms for thousands of companies, used The Bot Platform to build “how do you feel” bots that let executives check in on team wellness via Workplace. Moneypenny also created “working from home” groups on Workplace that help employees build community during lockdown by sharing recipes, pet photos, workouts, and more. Increasingly, companies are using team-building platforms to coordinate group activities like yoga, meditation, or even just coffee chats.

And employees are beginning to expect this from their employers; the same Oracle survey found that 76% of employees believe their employers should take more responsibility for their mental wellbeing. Businesses now realize they must do more to provide employees a social safety net. Those heeding that lesson will gain a major leg up on competitors, in areas like employee loyalty, retention, and productivity, versus those that don’t.

Prediction 3: Augmented and virtual reality will be widely adopted for training, collaboration, and improved customer contact.

New automation technologies are rapidly reshaping the world, creating tremendous opportunity for economic growth. But according to the World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs report, 54% of large organizations’ employees need significant re- and up-skilling to leverage these transformational changes.

This requires new tools deployed at mass scale that can efficiently train millions to do their jobs of the future. Virtual and augmented reality, which enable inexpensive, sophisticated, and widely distributable training scenarios, are perfect for the task. That's why, CCS Insights predicts, more than half of medium and large businesses in advanced economies will adopt AR/VR technology by 2025.

While current video training technologies do a poor job of capturing participants’ emotion and tone, AR and VR alleviate that emotional and cognitive tax by incorporating intelligent contextual tone and nuance, such as body language. That enables full-body, immersive experiences like virtual meetings that feel like you’re actually with other people.

Last year we introduced the new Oculus for Business platform, and already companies like Johnson & Johnson and Nestle Purina are using VR in the workplace for essential tasks like training surgeons and improving retail planning. Government workforce agencies, like AIDT in Alabama, are turning to VR to help provide skill training and propel high-potential unemployed people into viable new careers. And Infinite Office for our new Quest 2 headset will offer a flexible virtual work environment tool for any worker. Many businesses will see meaningful ROI thanks to VR.

That’s because it’s ideal for developing the soft skills of leadership and management. Comparing workers trained in VR with those who were more traditionally trained, PwC found that the former learned four times as fast, were 275% more confident in applying their new skills, were 3.75 times more emotionally connected, and were four times more focused. And the same study found that VR training becomes more cost-effective than traditional methods as learners scale.

Vicki Huff, Vice Chair, PwC United States and Ventures and Innovation, Global Leader, explains: “Companies today face a training dilemma. Their employees need to learn new skills and upgrade existing capabilities more urgently than ever before, but many now aren’t able to do so in person or alongside colleagues. How do employers deal with that challenge? VR is already known to be effective for teaching hard skills and for job skill simulations. But we also expect to see companies starting to adopt this technology to help employees learn soft skills, such as leadership, resilience, and managing through change. Our research shows that VR can help business leaders upskill their employees faster, even at a time when training budgets may be shrinking and in-person training is off the table.”

Meanwhile, businesses are increasingly using AR to enhance the consumer experience and engage new audiences in meaningful ways. For example, cultural institutions around the world like the Smithsonian, the Palace of Versailles, and the Tate Britain are employing our Spark AR platform to augment art, science, and culture exhibits. We're also helping The New York Times deliver AR news stories on Instagram. And brands everywhere are offering AR shopping tools, like augmented reality ads on Facebook.

When businesses utilize VR and AR, their employees are more connected and productive, regardless of where they live. Like previous technology shifts to the computer and the smartphone, AR/VR will unleash a flood of creativity, new applications, and new jobs that we couldn't previously have imagined.

Prediction 4: Location will cease to matter as we see a narrowing of the digital divide.

When the pandemic forced businesses to transition overnight to remote work, many expected the change to be temporary. But Gartner now predicts 47% of companies will let employees work from home full-time after the pandemic, with 82% green-lighting the practice part-time.

Done right, remote work can be highly effective, saving everyone time and money. To capitalize on this sea change, smart companies will adopt effective team collaboration technologies, like Workplace, that provide a true sense of presence and that help make business communication between employees and managers more transparent.

At the same time, they need to move beyond standard video-conferencing platforms to tools, like Portal or VR, that are more immersive and inclusive. 

Of course, only those with access to reliable Internet will be able to take advantage of remote working opportunities, and the global digital divide is still a serious problem. According to the World Economic Forum, there are 3.7 billion people globally with no Internet service, and a study by BroadbandNow concluded that even in the United States, 42 million lack high-speed connectivity. We can't afford to leave those people behind. Over the next three to five years, we’ll see more investments made in connectivity infrastructure to address the digital divide and make the future of work a reality for everyone.

Businesses worldwide are embracing remote work, and it’s becoming one of the biggest economic opportunities in decades. By turning away from large, centralized headquarters, companies will save big on office space, while employees will be able to lower living costs by moving to less populated areas. They’ll also save hours a day—and drastically reduce their environmental impact—by not commuting. By decentralizing work, and redistributing wealth and influence, we will strengthen communities around the world like never before.

Prediction 5: Companies will increasingly automate mundane tasks and focus on giving employees more satisfying work.

For years, people have worried that the rapid proliferation of automation technologies in business will cost jobs. The reality is much more optimistic: Automation isn’t about replacing jobs—it’s about enhancing them. 

Companies know that workers spend too much of their time on mundane tasks and not enough on real work. So increasingly, they’re using bots to take those tasks—things like filing tickets, sending and signing documents, and swapping hourly shifts with co-workers off employees’ hands. Thanks to automation, these organizations are devoting much more of their focus to improving work culture and ensuring employees are happy at their jobs.

At the same time, businesses will benefit from a surge of new products that advance what CCS Insights terms the “home-working last mile.” These include tools like small video calling devices and connected whiteboards that can make it easier for geographically-dispersed workers to collaborate.

Looking ahead, the economic and employment benefits of automation are exciting. In its Future of Jobs report, The World Economic Forum estimated that large-scale adoption of automation technology could result in the creation of 133 million jobs by 2022, far outpacing the 75 million roles that machines and algorithms will displace. Workers must be willing to learn new skills, but if they do, employment opportunities will abound.

As we move into 2021, companies and employees must recognize that work won’t return to how it was before the pandemic. But those who embrace the new technologies and philosophies of work that are coming will be more efficient and effective than ever. And they will lead us to a new prosperity.

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